Forensic Translation

Tower of Babel
Tower of Babel, by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1595


Benjamin Paloff on April 7, 2015 – 1:00PM ET

The task of the translator, to borrow the title of what is probably the twentieth century’s single most influential commentary about the goal of translation, is to create a text that improves upon the original. In all fairness to Walter Benjamin, this is not what he says in “The Task of the Translator.” Benjamin proposed that a good translation puts the same kind of pressure on the target language that the original puts on the source language, and so “to some degree all great texts contain their potential translation between the lines.” To claim that a translator aims to improve the original text flies in the face not only of Benjamin’s idealism but also of conventional wisdom, which holds that translation is impossible from the outset. As John Ciardi once said, translation is “the art of failure.” That the quote is frequently misattributed to Umberto Eco seems to back the point.

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